I met Karolina on the F train. The man beside her was speaking brusque, demanding Polish into her ear in a tone that reminded me of my childhood. Every so often he would slap a rolled-up map against his palm to emphasis a point and she would stare deeper into the opposing window, or perhaps just at her own reflection in the dark glass, pale and blond in a blue sweater with cut-off jean shorts and sparkly sandals. I was hanging on the pole in the center of the car, reading about the death of publishing on my phone. At the time I was an unpaid intern at a small press, the only job I could get after returning from a year of teaching English in Poland.
Later I would remember this period by how desperate I was to get rid of what I saw as my innocence. In Poland, I communicated poorly with family who loved me more than I thought possible. They had photos of me in all their apartments, in pigtails, with teddy bears they had sent on freights across the ocean, in pajamas they had embroidered by hand. They were certain I was as pure as I had been fifteen years ago when my parents and I left for Chicago.
The man finally got up from his seat and peered over a few seated heads to look at the subway map. He sighed and announced that they must be going in the wrong direction.
"Can I help you?" I asked finally.
"You speak Polish?" I was speaking to him in Polish.
"Badly," I said, smiling gamely. It was nine twenty-seven in the morning, and I had commuted over an hour from the Upper West Side. I was already late.
"That’s obvious," he replied. His head was shaved on the sides and he wore the mid-calf capris that instantly separate European from American men, whose shorts by law never reach an inch above or below the knee.
His rudeness roused Karolina from her trance. "I want to get off in Dumbo," she said to me in English.
"Actually, it's this stop," I replied, pointing to the red letters blinking across the screen.
"Perfect," she said. "Let's go." She grabbed my arm and I followed her off the train just as the doors dinged shut. The man banged his map on the window, his neck full of blood.
"Asshole," she said.
"But really that's all the English I can speak for today," she added, switching to Polish. "I'm already exhausted. This city is exhausting." Then she took off up the ramp toward the subway exit at great speed, gesturing for me to follow.
I looked back briefly, catching the last glimpse of the illuminated orange F as the train disappeared down the tunnel.
We walked as close to the water as we could, though parts of the riverfront still blocked up with remnants of industrial Brooklyn, a power station, old warehouses that were soon to be condos. I hid my face as we passed by my office, which had a small bookstore in front selling our titles, reprints of lesser known works by famous writers, pseudo-countercultural diatribes on current trends in food and fitness, cheaply printed novels. Finally we came out from under the bridge and walked the clear stretch of park that touched the water, waves beating up against the black rocks, people posing for pictures against the Manhattan skyline, joggers, whole families on bicycles.
Karolina wanted to know where everyone was getting ice cream.
"Maybe an ice cream truck came by," I said, partially in English, not knowing how to translate.
She shook her head, as if such a combination of words was impossible in either language.
She told me it was her second time in New York and that back home she was hoping to start a fashion line. She wanted to find a way to stay in the States, study a little bit, soak up the city, but Pawel wanted her to get serious. They had been together almost ten years, since high school, but she had become more sophisticated, ambitious, and he had stayed the same. She asked me if I had a boyfriend.
"Yeah," I said. "I live with him and his parents."
Karolina nodded her head in sympathy, the first person not to greet this admission with mock horror. "I lived with Pawel's parents while I was finishing my degree. He's from a town closer to Warsaw. It was just easier."
"What did he study?"
"He dropped out after the first year of business school and went to work for his father. They own a chain of home appliance stores." Karolina squinted into the bright morning and I could see the beige makeup catching in her laugh lines. "Thrilling, I know. I'm supposed to be grateful to be so well taken care of."
"Sean is an illustrator. He has an online shop and works freelance on the weekends."
"Artist makes him cringe," I said, defending his position instinctively, though privately I thought of him as one too. The first time we'd hung out, at the play-diner on our sleepy Ohio campus, he made a tiny paper cat out of a straw wrapper and Sweet‘N Low packet. It still slept on the desk in my childhood bedroom in Chicago. But I hadn’t been back there, had flown directly back to Sean, to New York.
"Hold on to him," Karolina said, stopping at a vendor to buy a bottle of water. It was September and still hot, but whatever nostalgic, happy-to-be-back feelings the summer had gifted me were winding down with the dying heat. I no longer felt content with the relative happiness of being home. She uncapped the water and then paused.
"I'm sorry – that was dumb," she said. "I hate when people say things like that to me. I don't know anything about him."
"Sean is really sweet," I said, stopping at the end of the walk and leaning into the railing over the water. "The whole time I was gone, I never worried, never thought—" Karolina leaned over the ledge next to me, handing me her bottle to drink from.
When I had first spotted her on the train I saw hard edges, her sharp nose, the shorn boyfriend, but now when I looked over, her face was round and soft. Her hair was the color of the chamomile tea my father made me drink when I was sick, tasting of licorice and cut grass. The light wool of her sweater brushed my arm. She reminded me of my mother’s friends, who would come over for coffee and cake and tell me in Polish how pretty I was, and then sternly remind me to study before shooing me out of the kitchen. There was forgiveness in this world for pretty girls, but only so much, and only for the smaller sins.
"Do you want to have a drink?"
She looked at me like an older sister, amused. "I thought I left Pawel on the train."
We went to a small, dark place on one of the cobblestone streets than led to and from the water. I immediately got carded, something that never happened in Poland. I told Karolina a little about my teaching job there: Business English, four days a week at a technical school in a small town.
"A village," she said, when I named it.
The only good part was the long breaks between semesters, and during exam period, when I got to travel.
"There were about ten of us English teachers," I said, "all spread out to schools across the country. It used to be that they just put everyone in Krakow and Warsaw, but that wasn't fair, they decided."
"To whom?" she asked, laughing.
"So we emailed," I continued, "and met up when we could. The last one was a trip to Budapest, and we stayed in an old bunker. It was hung with photos from the Second World War. Starving children, soldiers. Every time I opened the door to our room they stared at us from the photographs. They were blown-up. Life-sized."
"Did Sean visit you?"
"We only had time to travel in Poland, because of his work. He met my family."
They took photos of us in front of a cherry tree in early spring. I was wearing a floral skirt with thick tights. He wore slacks, dressed up for the occasion. I pictured the photograph in a frame alongside the others, as if the future could be printed into existence.
My drink stood empty in front of me. Karolina ordered another one for me, another soda water for herself.
She was only a few years older than me but I got the sense that she knew firmly, completely who she was, and that even if at the moment she was stuck with Pawel and his family, she would find a way out.
"I know how I’m supposed to feel," I said. “Like how you’re supposed to love Pawel.”
This made her laugh. She said only, "a year is a long time to be away.”
"But Sean could do it."
Karolina got the check and paid it, and then led me back out into the sunlight. The summer hadn’t wilted yet, and the tall grasses by the river, the small, fragrant bushes, were a terrible hot green.
“Anyone can make a little mistake if that’s what you’re worried about,” she said.
But I had tried that argument out countless times. A little mistake might have been replying to Bill’s first or second or tenth email, commiserating about the students, the pain of pretending authority in the classroom. It was like play-acting. If just one person refused to go along, the whole performance fell apart. Like the day where I couldn’t figure out the projector and they started walking out, one by one and then all together, emboldened to dismiss themselves.
Sean encouraged me to have patience. Bill said fuck them.
We bantered about the debacle that always ensued while traveling in a group of ten. About the meager baggage allowances of budget airlines. Bill proposed ditching the lot of ‘em.
I met him at Ferenc Liszt airport. We checked into the bunker hotel and then did a different kind of play-acting. He called his wife and, scratching his beard, said we were all doing a beer tour and would be out late. Instead, we climbed to the top of the turreted, blanched stone fortress and stood looking out at the darkening city. Instead, we descended into the inevitable, which felt at every moment until the last like it might not happen but then did, gently and over more quickly than I’d fantasized, and with only the torchlight coming in from outside the window.
We showered, separately. As I washed my hair I thought of that line from some old movie about how it was nothing, like shaking hands, an agreement to keep it between us.
I came back into the room without clothes or toweling off and walked towards him, ready again to be wanted. Instead, his eyes softened with surprise, as if seeing for the first time how very young I was.
I wanted Karolina to tell me to confess. After all, I’d let a summer go by poisoned with the memory of Bill’s face, which I sometimes managed to forget but then just as suddenly returned to me, especially in the mornings, like a bad taste, heightened by the pressure of Sean’s body next to mine. By his mother’s knock good morning.
Karolina was rapt beside me, not wanting, perhaps, to betray any kind of judgment. When we got back to the bridge she asked me to take her picture.
"I'm a tourist, after all.”
She gave me her phone and I arranged it clumsily between my hands. I got her whole body in, and the bridge, and a sliver of Manhattan. The fake shutter snapped several times and then I handed it back, satisfied. She held the phone out so I could see, too, a slight, blond stranger, her face pale and holy in the direct sunlight, her gaze fixed back on us.
Monika Zaleska holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and is currently a Ph.D. student at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She sends out a newsletter called Reader’s Report, which is open to submissions.